Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist

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Thumbnail for A Defense of Abortion, arguing that abortion is not murder.

Note: this is a transcript for my video, “Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist”

Years ago, when I rejected Christianity and became an atheist, something interesting happened. Although I was comfortable without God in my life, it took me quite a while to change my position on abortion- which, at least anecdotally, seems to be the experience for lots of ex-believers. I sought out debates on the topic, I read works of philosophy to get away from the political noise, and concluded that- if progressives are to win this argument, they MUST begin with personhood. In other words, they need to establish, first and foremost, that a fetus is NOT a person, and that it does NOT have the same inviolable right to life like most persons do. I knew, of course, that personhood was just ONE point of contention in the philosophical literature, but, to me, it felt like it was the biggest point- the most important point- the only point.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to suspect that this insistence on the personhood argument might be little more than a vestige of my former Christianity. After all, I’d read a number of brilliant pro-abortion arguments that conceded personhood, but still went on to make their case. I would simply tune these arguments out, and there was really no good reason why- until, of course, I looked back into my own religious past, and saw what I was in fact doing. I seemed, in short, to have accepted the Christian idea of ensoulment- that every human, or potential human, has a right to that which God has given, now sublimated into an apparently secular argument that I felt was necessary to make.

But what if personhood is NOT necessary? What if- as the philosophical literature suggests- we can CONCEDE personhood to the anti-abortionists, and STILL come away with a compelling argument for abortion? Further, IF we successfully argue from the position of bodily autonomy, we do MORE than make good on a political claim. We can also put to rest yet another hooded remnant of religious thinking, and bring the focus back on human beings making ethical choices in the only moral system we’ve ever really had.

Prior to going any further, I want to briefly discuss thought experiments, and why philosophers use them.

On first glance, a thought experiment might seem strange and even downright exotic, but that’s actually the point. By eliminating emotional triggers – such as the word “fetus” – a philosopher can get you to respond strictly to the logical content of an argument, as opposed to whatever baggage you might be tempted by. Of course, some thought experiments ARE badly constructed, and do not capture the relevant parts of reality in the way they think they do, but THIS is what’s up for debate: and not merely the fact that a thought experiment has been invoked.

Alex Sheremet in front of Not Your Liberal logo, arguing why abortion is not murder.

Perhaps the most famous thought experiment related to abortion is Judith Thomson’s Violinist, which is part of … Continue reading →